Looking at the young faces present in that little room in the Arts faculty of Delhi University, I was more anxious than pleased. Brought up on the glamour of Bombay cinema, of films like Chak de India and Taare zameen par, would these boys and girls be kept interested by Sanjay Kaks’ two and a quarter hour long documentary? A documentary that does not have a clear story line, no actors, and a complicated conclusion which fuses History and Geography in ways that seem always ready to slip out of one’s hands and mind?
But Jashn-e-Azadi began, and all my doubts were dispelled. On that mottled white wall, as images and sounds emerged, the wall itself disappeared, the room vanished, and despite the ambient light in that room, so did the faces of those who had gathered to see the film. What emerged slowly was the truth about the valley called Kashmir, where freedom is an illusionary word.
This is that tattered Kashmir, where amidst falling snow a father looks for his sons’ grave – once a commander with HM, the Hizbul Mujahideen, now dead. The father has come on Eid day so that he can read a benediction in his sons’ memory. In this Kashmir people count their dead as if they are remembering things lost. In this Kashmir a young girl is terrified by her own recounting of an event. In this Kashmir, family members look for a lost child, a photograph in their hands. In this Kashmir young girls carry the marks of terror in their hearts, and even in their dreams they see their dying fathers… In the midst of this, a sadhu mendicant who has come for the pilgrimage of the Amarnath Yatra warns anyone who even lifts an eye towards Kashmir, that he will gouge their eyes out.
No, this is not a film that plays with your emotions. Sanjay Kak has probably intentionally kept away from that easy path. All these images you have to search for – to try and figure out that what it is in this apparently calm film that leaves you so troubled. For it does not give us the luxury of being emotional just for an instant, and then be allowed to forget about it. In this search, when you look beyond a deserted Lal Chowk, where soldiers raise the Indian tricolor and sing the national anthem, or when you see a huge crowd raise slogans of azadi, freedom, its then that you see these faces. That’s when you can see that behind the silence–or clamour–of Kashmir is sadness, we see that tragedy where there are burnt homes, the marks of what looks like dried out blood, and futile attempts to wash out the fresh blood.
Sanjay Kak does not show us too much or tell us too much. Incidents and characters are allowed to speak. On a beautiful lake in Kashmir floats the voice of a poet–binding lost times and places with its lament and its pain. And around this pain there is also the boorish tourist gaze, for whom Kashmir is just some snow upon which they may slide, or a beautiful garden: the excited screams of these tourists inform us that this Kashmir is better than Switzerland. Other than the tourists, there are the Soldiers– running schools for orphans at one place, distributing portable radios at another, and promising that more nice things will follow, and for everyone…
At every step of the film this maze of contradictions seems to hold us back, and often we feel that this film should now get over. But the film is not done even after it is over. While it is clearly a political film, its lessons are still not those of an easy politics. All that one can see is that with 700,000 soldiers, Independence day still has to be celebrated in silence, and events with school children too need to happen behind impregnable security barriers. On the other hand, when the Army kills someone in a so-called “encounter”, the funeral procession for the dead boy turns into a rally for the azadi of Kashmir. It’s quite clear that anger against India’s hegemonic politics and militarised policies has survived all the oppression.
The film raises several important questions about history and the present. Sanjay Kak sees the struggle of the Kashmiris as linked to 500 years of servitude. This leads to a kind of unmediated simplification in which its not easy to understand the dilemmas that have arisen after 1947, as Kashmir has swung between India and Pakistan, both in its society and its politics. Secondly this film does not attempt to articulate the kashmiriyat that is spoken of so frequently. If it did, it would perhaps make it even clearer that identities do not have just one definition, they have many layers, and kashmiriyat too is constructed out of just such layers.
In any event, Sanjay Kak does not seem to be in a hurry to raise the questions or provide the answers. Nor is he trying to weave some sort of story out of all this. Instead, between the scrambled dates and places, he shows us a Kashmir where in twenty years 70,000 people have lost their lives, he takes us to those graveyards where people are recognized not by their names or faces, but by numbers. In the entire film, no Kashmiri Pandits are visible, and this is also represented by Sanjay as a sort of emptiness, towards which peoples’ attention must be drawn. Like a blank space in a painting, which still adds meaning to that picture. Perhaps it’s due to this distant neutrality that the film doesn’t have a specific beginning or end. It seems to go on– and even after it is over.
By the time the film ended in that room in Delhi University, the numbers of those gathered seem to have grown suddenly, and Sanjay was faced with a pile of questions. Questions that tried to understand the extremely complex reality of Kashmir, questions related to the politics and neutrality of the film. Amidst these questions it was clear that Jashn-e-Azadi was successful in its aims–it touches you from a distance, and without your knowing it, goes deep inside of you. That is its major achievement.